“Dario's films always seem to work when they come just after Christmas. It's like an antidote to all the Christmas cheer that's going on.” – author Alan Jones
The Card Player / Il Cartaio is somewhat of a return to the police procedural drama (and similarly less bloody) story that Dario Argento so ably handled in Il Tram / The Tram, the best of the four episodes that comprised his Door into Darkness (1973) TV series. That isn't to say Card Player doesn't contain the violence and shocks native to a giallo, but up to the first two-thirds, the film is basically a hunt for a serial killer who has fun taunting the police by wagering the life of young women via an online poker game.
The transference and sharing of guilt is the film's main theme, and it's one of the reasons Card Player has aged fairly well, given its emphasis on primordial internet technology. Detective Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) is more or less shoved into the horrible poker game by her colleagues as her team's lead player, but when she fails to convince her boss to allow her to play the game and potentially save the life of a missing Britosh tourist, Anna's guilt, and determination to stop the killer, is deepened.
Even when she and new partner John Brennan (Dog Soldiers' Liam Cunningham) find a poker whiz kid to play Round 4, the fate of the next victim is tied to the kid's success, which could result in accolades for the department, or potentially destroy Mari's career, as well as doom Brennan's, a forensic-trained detective on ‘shame duty' - repositioned to embassy work after the guilt from shooting a kid ruined his career in Ireland.
As the case further develops, it opens up deeply buried wounds in Anna, and forces her to address personal feelings about not being unable to save her father from what became a lethal gambling addiction.
Argento's pacing of scenes and montages is very well balanced (partly due to Claudio Simonetti's completed score being available as the director began editing), his shock cuts are very chilling (particularly smash cuts from emotionally neutral shots to close-ups of cadavers). Simonetti's all synth and techno-based score beautifully supports the drama, and some jazz-based cues add some tenderness to the oddly-paired veteran cops.
On the minus is the sometimes terrible English dubbing (for some reason secondary characters are always dubbed by the same core Italian actors who exaggerate American mannerisms), and facile tech talk (the use of ‘fire walls' and ‘proxy servers' are dropped like leadened buzzwords when they were hardly arcane or cryptic in 2004). One character later experiences a surprisingly tragic death, but the final third more or less focuses on a very silly endgame (death scene excepted) that pits Anna against the serial killer, and Argento tacks on a final revelation that's supposed to offer hope, but is clumsily dropped seconds before the end credits start to crawl.
The lesser characters and the police chief's daughter (Fiore Argento, returning to the thriller genre after a long absence from Argento's Phenomena, and Lamberto Bava's Demons / Demoni) are given idiotic dialogue written by men who think twentysomething girls are anything but brainless chatterheads (only in an Argento film do girls speak so moronically), and the police chief himself is kind of a buffoon: his initial stance to stop Anna from playing her first poker game with the killer is wobbly, and he more or less stays a caricature for the rest of the film.
Those weaknesses are tempered by some very strong performances by the main cast who were allowed to indulge in some effective improvisation, expanding roles generally confined as thin archetypes in Argento's films.
Author Alan Jones (Profondo Argento) contributes an excellent (and more importantly) steady commentary track, and he neatly ties common and new elements within the Card Player to other works within the director's canon. Being present during two weeks of filming (which gave him plenty of time to chat with the cast and crew), Jones also adds some anecdotes, and provides good sketches of the actors that make up one of Argento's best casts in recent years.
Fans will also appreciate a good recap of the film's origins: when Argento's next project after Sleepless / Non ho sonno (2001) fell through after production company Cecchi Gori began experiencing serious financial problems, he and longtime co-writer Franco Ferrini pulled out an old script as a potential replacement.
Titled In the Dark, the script was designed as a sort of a semi-sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome (which is interesting, since the Asia Argento character in the 1996 film was in no shape to return to work by the end of that film), and was originally set in Venice. When French investors were brought into the game, the film was to have co-starred Mathieu Kassovitz (who then left to direct the idiotic Gothika), and then Vincent Cassel, until the script was moved to Rome and the role of the British detective was given Liam Cunningham.
Jones also describes the film's two alternate endings that were written and intended to be shot at various stages during pre-production and principal photography, and what vestiges remain in the early parts of finished the film (which, unlike the messy La Terza madre / The Mother of Tears, are barely perceptible and don't affect the narrative's fairly logical structure).
Anchor Bay's DVD also includes two excellent featurettes directed by Perry Martin. In “Playing with Death,” a lengthy interview with Argento (in Italian, with English subtitles) is intercut with on-set footage and film clips, plus excerpts of the director's own views on how the film differs from his prior work.
“Maestro of Fear” is a surprisingly lengthy interview with personable composer Claudio Simonetti (also in Italian, with English subtitles), who provides a concise overview of his collaborative relationship with Argento, and his prior work with Goblin from Profondo Rosso / Deep Red (1975) to Dawn of the Dead / Zombi (1978).
Simonetti also talks about performing classic themes with his new group Daemonia, and his live performances with a symphonic orchestra of his original score for Nosferatu (1922), which sadly remains unavailable on DVD.
There's many film and audio clips, stills and archival pictures (Simonetti is virtually ageless, with a marvelous boyish visage), and this is probably the first time the composer's been so generously showcased on video and allowed to talk about his craft – making the DVD quite important for Goblin fans as well as soundtrack collectors.
A behind-the-scenes featurette features a good mix of effects and shooting footage, and is underscored with excerpts from Simonetti's Daemonia: Dario Argento Tribute album. (The vivid reworking of themes by Simonetti, Goblin, and Morricone will undoubtedly have one contemplating buying the CD). The promo trailer is also of note for being scored with early demo versions of score themes.
Anchor Bay's film transfer is very clean, and nicely shows of the chilling cinematography of Benoît Debie (the shock-film Irreversible, and the underrated thriller Joshua). Should the label begin to release some of their Argento titles on Blu-Ray, The Card Player will offer an excellent combination of fine photography and a rich, bass-friendly soundtrack.
This title is available separately, and as part of the 2008 tin boxed set, 5 Films by Dario Argento, which includes Tenebre, Phenomena (1985), Trauma, Il Cartaio / The Card Player (2004), and Do You Like Hitchcock? / Ti piace Hitchcock?
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan